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Mark Bauerlein of Emory’s English department has an interesting piece in The New York Times, entitled “What’s the Point of a Professor?”, but interesting not necessarily for the reasons he might have intended… In it, Bauerlein — rightly, I think — decries the lack of engagement between student and professor, and how that paucity of contact could reduce the impact the instructor has on their students.

However, the rest of the piece shows how academics misunderstand their position, and the product which they are providing. That last comment will immediately bring an emotional response from professors, I’m sure: “We’re not providing a product! We provide knowledge and wisdom!” Here’s Bauerlein:

When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes. We may be 50-year-olds at the front of the room with decades of reading, writing, travel, archives or labs under our belts, with 80 courses taught, but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples

…most undergraduates never know that stage of development when a learned mind enthralled them and they progressed toward a fuller identity through admiration of and struggle with a role model

You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it.

[Emphasis mine]

A quick look over the anecdotes about how professors changed, enriched, or “progressed” the minds of students shows something…they’re all academics. What Bauerlein misses, and academics have missed since the GI Bill rolled out, is that college has been — to the majority of people — an exercise in certification, not sitting at the knee of the “Great Man” and taking on his wisdom. Careers and paychecks, for those people outside of the coddled cloister of tenure, where you “live in a world of ideas”, is absolutely more important than ideas and wisdom. You can’t eat ideas. Wisdom doesn’t keep you warm on a cold night.

Moreover, the explosion of access to knowledge via the internet — this age’s printing press — allows those who just want to know, who want wisdom, to look for it without an interlocutor. Just as the printing press allowed the layman access to the word of God without the intervening opinion of a priest, the internet allows the curious skeptic the opportunity to trawl through most of humanity’s knowledge without the political framework of the professor. They can make their own context; they don’t need yours.

Worse is the idea that academia, of which I have been a part — on and off — for fifteen years, has real wisdom to impart! Look at the quote: decades of reading and writing, travel (usually to very nice, safe sections of the locales they go to), archive and labs… When your wisdom comes solely from a book, when you have no real need to engage with everyday economics, you don’t have to make a payroll, you don’t have to help build a small hospital in a rural location, you never had to jump out of an airplane so people could shoot at you in some awful part of the world, never had to learn a trade…what the fuck do you have to offer the average person that comes to college to grab a bachelor’s degree so they can get a management position in a small company?

If someone is going into business, do you think your well-read but completely inexperienced critique of capitalism is going to enrich them? (They do…that was rhetorical.) Are the poems of Wordsworth and a basic overview of Buddhism going to help a guy troubleshoot your network, or do a tactical reload while under fire from some soldier who wants you dead? No.

This “wisdom” is the purview of the wannabe elite, sheltered from real work, competition, expectations of performance, or the hard edges of the world. They might see this from a remove, but they are hardly in it. Theirs is the wisdom of the observer, not the doer. Their complaints are those of the monopolist whose product is no longer the only one on the market.

That said, his critique of grade inflation is certainly valid. Professors who feel the need to conform to students’ demands of better grades do not provide a better product by making things easier on their clients. Expectations of quality are still essential to providing a degree, a certification, that are actually worth something. By lowering standards, you debase your product, which in turn lowers the demand for what you are selling. The steady decline over the last few years in college enrollment is a symptom of this — there are now so many people with degrees that have little utility to their employers, and these students have been allowed to perform at substandard levels, that a college degree now has a higher cost than benefit for many people (outside of technical and science-related degrees, of course.)

Engaging with one’s students shouldn’t be an exercise in self-aggrandizement, but rather customer service, an attempt to suss out what it is the student needs. Is a bachelor’s in psychology or philosophy really advantageous to the student? Might they be better suited in a vocational program, or perhaps another area of academia? Maybe school isn’t really what they need. No matter what the academics might wish their position to be, they are service providers who must meet the demands of their clientele.

That’s what the real world looks like.